Over the course of 10 days in the fall of 1994, a group of more than 3,700 volunteers contributed more than 17,500 hours of work to construct a large, wooden playground in the new South Lakes Park.
Sandy Kristoferson and Loyce Wilson, who were co-chairs of the project to create Eureka playground, spent a year working with a board to coordinate the project, from conducting large fundraisers to hiring an architect and creating the park design before the building began.
“The community came out like you could not imagine — from all corners of town,” Wilson said. “It was something I’ve never experienced before or since — just a beautiful sense of community.”
Volunteers ranged in age and ability with the construction, and area restaurants provided free meals to the workers. Seeing their work come to fruition with so much assistance was one of the greatest experiences of Wilson’s life, she recalled. Even young children were assigned tasks to help out.
“It was so much fun to see the kids get involved — fathers and sons and mothers and daughters all got together, and we made sure we had age-appropriate jobs for the kids, and they really worked hard,” she said. “They really got into it, and it was their project.”
Since the playground was built, it has been a special icon in the community, said Janet Shelton, who was treasurer of the board that helped create the playground and who now serves on the city’s Parks, Recreation and Beautification Board.
“Eureka is a very special thing to the city of Denton, and it’s full of kids and full of good memories for good people,” she said. “And it’s a historical thing — there’s a lot of nameplates and handprints, and tiles that were sold and donations that were made that are still on that playground.”
The playground may now be in danger, though, as the city’s park staff have recommended to replace the wooden playground as part of the 2014 bond election for roughly $1 million. In the past, the staff recommendations were reviewed by a citizen committee before a final list was decided for Denton voters.
“I’m really saddened by it. I feel like it’s just ignoring the countless hours and the emotion that went into it,” Wilson said. “I know at some point we need to put aside emotion and do what’s best for the community, but I’m not sure the proposal is what’s best for the community.”
Earlier this month, new research brought back concerns about the safety of the playground, which was constructed with wood treated with a pesticide that can leach low levels of arsenic.
Kristoferson said the parks department has gone above the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure the playground is safe. The wood is sealed twice a year, instead of the recommendation of once a year, and the EPA does not call for the removal of the wood.
There are greater risks by children going to eat in an establishment where smoking is allowed, she argued, and said there are several other risks parents should be concerned about besides their child eating potentially dangerous dirt at a playground.
“It has been sealed almost in excess because of these continued reactions that have come up,” she said. “It disturbs me that people are raising this outcry when there are far greater risks that our children face every day.”
Emerson Vorel, parks and recreation director with the city, noted the age of the playground as a potential concern, as the average lifespan for a playground is 20 years. While it is a heavily used facility and somewhat of an icon, he said he’s seen responses from community members who grew up on the playground but are excited at the possibility of an upgrade.
While Vorel stressed no decision has been made about Eureka’s fate, he said there have been internal discussions about how to preserve some of the customized aspects of the grounds, like handprinted tiles, and making a new playground more accessible.
“As we move forward, whenever the time comes that Eureka gets replaced, we want to try to build a more inclusive playground,” he said. “That would be one of the criteria we’ll be looking at, to see if we can make it more accessible to youngsters with disabilities.”
If a new playground does replace Eureka, both Kristoferson and Wilson said they hope it would be made of wood and of a similar style to the current structures, though Vorel has said the city would look into plastic or steel structures.
The current playground is based off of an episode of Sesame Street, Kristoferson said, and the project has brought years of joy to countless children. She and Wilson hope Eureka will be able to continue its legacy in the community for years to come, as well as in their own families.
“I’m getting ready to have a granddaughter and I just thought last week how exciting it would be for her to see her daddy’s handprints from when he took part in building it,” Wilson said. “It’s a legacy.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.